The question that is often asked of performance films is why people shouldn't just trundle along to the live show. Notwithstanding the difficulties of seeing one of Pina Bausche's routines live, unless one lives in the right cities or has some cash to burn, the answers given by Wender's Pina is that cameras offer you a multitude of perspectives that you would never have from a static seat in a theatre, that you can experience radical, astonishing violations of space and time, and that he can build fluid, nested narratives.
The first dance sequence establishes this rapidly. While the viewer is initially seated behind a row of chairs in a Wuppertal theatre they quickly find themselves in amongst the dancers, bearing witness to their movements in remarkably intimate ways: They find themselves watching from over the shoulder of a male dancer as the woman nervously approach him, the angle chosen to emphasis the way he looms over them, and then, later, they are the male dancer - inhabiting his perspective and complicit in his actions.
Wenders goes further though. For most of the film he carefully establishes the spaces he shoots in before cutting in to different angles and by doing so he carefully preserves the space's integrity. This effect is heightened by the use of 3D and the requisite minimal cuts. However he also demolishes these spaces or reconceptualises them in startling ways: a man is transported, in an instant, from a quarry to a rock on a theatre stage and a theatre becomes a diorama. That Wenders establishes such spaces so carefully before tearing them apart makes it all the more striking.
He does similarly bold things with time and narrative connections - this film has more nested stories than Inception. Couples in a ballroom pause to have their pictures taken and after the shutter clicks and the flash goes off we are transported (back in time?) to their solo dances performed under a sky-train, on which a man with rabbit ears is travelling who, by the way, earlier observed a J-horror-esque woman stride into his carriage and so on and so on... In case it's not already clear this film really is substantially more bonkers than the tasteful marketing might imply.
And a lot of that might have something to do with the woman at the film's centre. Pina - whose dancers, express their love for her in terms which are often gossamer thin, in a way that the dances themselves are not* - appears to have approached her work with both a deadly serious and a charmingly playful spirit.** On the deadly serious side there definitely seems to be a strong feminist streak in her work. One harrowing scene has a group of well dressed men aggressively primping/fondling a woman and I may have done some serious cringing at another in which a man performs his masculinity for several disinterested women. But Pina's work doesn't seem to be traditionally auteurist in the sense of her having one overriding concern: there are other dances here which are celebratory, or slyly funny, or even subtext free.
In all of them though there is a sense of an endlessly creative spirit, fully engaged in life and constantly seeking to express that. And in that sense Wender's film succeeds as both as a tribute to her, as a memorial for fans of her work and as an introduction for clueless people like myself.
* A lot of people have complained that the interludes in which they do so stop the film dead in its tracks. I feel differently - not because I found their thoughts especially illuminating (and indeed sometimes they come across as talking empty art-speak) - but rather because it gave me chance to be introduced to the dancers before they gave themselves over to Pina's vision. (Okay, now who's talking empty art-speak?)
**Maybe there's a reason they find it so hard to pin her down